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St. Louis' Board Of Freeholders Nominees In Limbo Amid Continued Deadlock

Members of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment meet Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, at St. Louis City Hall.
Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Members of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment meet Wednesday at St. Louis City Hall.

St. Louis aldermen have failed to act on Mayor Lyda Krewson's nominations to the Board of Freeholders, casting doubt on the city's ability to have a say in a process to revamp the way the region is governed.

A special meeting of the Board of Aldermen scheduled for Wednesday was canceled after Krewson and members of the Black Caucus failed to come to an agreement on the nominees. That means the city has missed a deadline set by the state constitution to approve its freeholders members.

But blowing past that deadline may not actually mean much, thanks to a court ruling from the 1950s.

The mayor has been at odds with members of the aldermanic Black Caucus over the number of nominees who live in north St. Louis. Board President Lewis Reed pulled the plug on Wednesday’s meeting after the city’s executive and legislative branches failed to reach an agreement.

Reed said it’s important to have the right people on a board that could present a city-county merger plan to voters. African Americans have consistently raised alarm over consolidation efforts, contending that such a move could dilute black political power and hurt governmental service. 

“There’s a lot at stake here,” Reed said. “And I think it’s more than reasonable for people who have felt certainly marginalized for years to have some pause and say, ‘You know what, let’s go through the process, but let’s make sure we have a voice at the table.’”

Reed noted that the Better Together plan, which would have created a metro government overseeing the city and St. Louis County, collapsed after widespread opposition from black political leaders. The proposal was pulled after former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, who originally was designated as the leader of the new metro government, pleaded guilty to corruption charges.

“One of the biggest issues with the Better Together plan is not bringing people to the table and not ensuring people had a voice or felt like they had a voice,” Reed said. “And that caused a huge amount of opposition. It would just be such a mess-up for the city for us not to get this thing right coming out of the gate.”

For her part, Krewson said the board needs to formally reject nominees before she can appoint replacements.

“We really need for the Board of Aldermen to take action on that,” Krewson said. “And when they approve or disapprove these nominees, we’ll go from there. But I don’t have an opportunity to submit new nominees when I have the nine that are there before the board.”

Krewson said that aldermen want nominees Abdul-Kaba Abdullah, Earl Nance, LaShana Lewis and Eddie Roth replaced.

Tick, tock

One reason why the failure to approve the nominees was significant is that the Missouri Constitution states that the “appointment of the board shall be completed within thirty days after the certification of the filing of the petition.” Wednesday was the 30th day since certification.

“The process calling for the formation of a Board of Freeholders, outlined in … the Missouri Constitution is designed so the elected officials can’t ignore the will of the people,” said the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis’ Pat Kelly, whose group gathered petitions to launch the freeholders process. “On behalf of all the city voters who requested the board to take this action, the Municipal League members certainly hope the aldermen move quickly to comply with the constitution they were elected to uphold.” 

Alderman Bret Narayan, a member of the committee that reviewed the freeholders nominees, said: “We’re kind of in uncharted territory here. Anytime the Missouri Constitution lays out a process and you don’t follow that process, I think the situation becomes ripe for litigation.”

Terry Jones is a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and an expert on the freeholders process. He noted that in the 1950s, the Board of Freeholders was formed to examine consolidating transit services. The governor’s appointment was late “because of the confusion based on the changeover in governors in 1953,” Jones wrote in an email to St. Louis Public Radio.

“A lawsuit was filed to invalidate the Board’s recommendation because of the lateness of that appointment,” Jones wrote. “The Missouri Supreme Court unanimously rejected that claim. The transit district proposal was defeated … by both City and County voters.”

County also misses deadline

St. Louis County Council has also failed to approve all nine of County Executive Sam Page’s nominees by the deadline Wednesday. Eight are approved, but county council members haven’t had a chance to interview one nominee because she has been out of the country.

Gov. Mike Parson on Tuesday named Joseph C. Blanner, an attorney who lives in Jefferson County, as his nominee to the board.

Reed said both the county’s situation and the 1950s-era court case give him confidence that the freeholders process will proceed.

“St. Louis County still has to appoint one member to get their nine. The governor’s done his piece. Now we need to do our piece,” Reed said. “And I think that it’s important that we do.”

The Board of Aldermen is slated to meet again on Friday.

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Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.
Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.